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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Empowering and Uplifting Others

  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
Executive Director and Founding Partner

Empowering and uplifting others is one of the most important things wise leaders do. In organizations and in life, we work with and through others. When they do well, we do well. When they succeed, we succeed. Wise leaders want people in their organizations to learn, to grow, and to be effective. Empowerment is the key.

Empowerment is like a magical elixir or pixie dust; spread it around and positive, often unforeseen effects sprout forth. All of us have been on the giving or receiving end of empowerment at some time in our lives. Early in my career as a neophyte educational leader, I experienced the power of empowerment. As a doctoral student at Temple University, I was accepted into an elite administrative intern program under the auspices of Professor Lee Olson. Being one of Dr. Olson’s interns was elevating and empowering. Association with this program conferred status and respect; I felt honored to be selected. I held Dr. Olson in high regard and wanted to do everything in my power to justify his faith in me. In fact, it was his faith in me that kindled an internal spark to do my best. He had given me a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. He had put his stamp of approval on me. I was determined to do him proud. I set out to be the best—or at least one of the best—interns he had ever seen. Like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, I sensed an inner force. For the first time in my life I felt empowered. I felt like an enhanced version of myself.

What had actually happened? Two things stand out: One, I had been given a wonderful opportunity to learn, up close and personal, how to be a superintendent of schools, for I was to intern with one of the top superintendents in the State of Delaware. Two, by word and action, Dr. Olson had shown his faith in me. When someone in authority expresses faith in you for a position or assignment it is empowering, especially when you hold that person in high regard.

The superintendent I was to intern with decided that for the first half of the school year I should understudy his deputy superintendent, who was a stellar school leader in his own right. During my first week he decided to test me. There was a dispute between several school principals and the director of transportation. They had been unable to resolve the matter among themselves and had appealed to the deputy superintendent’s office to resolve the matter. He asked me if I’d like to handle it, and I jumped at the opportunity. I read the letters and documents that had been sent, and then arranged to meet with all the parties to the dispute. I introduced myself as the superintendent’s intern, assigned to the Office of the Deputy Superintendent. After investigating the matter thoroughly, I wrote a report for the deputy superintendent with my findings and recommendations. Here’s where the empowerment came in. Not only did the deputy superintendent commend me for the job I had done, he told me to draft a letter to the involved parties with my findings and decision and send it out over my own signature on the Office of the Deputy Superintendent letterhead. When one of the administrators involved questioned the deputy, he simply said, he’s the superintendent’s intern, and he speaks with the authority of this office. Talk about empowerment! In one stroke, the deputy superintendent of the largest district in the state of Delaware had established that I should be taken seriously. He had shared his power with me, thereby empowering me. I was grateful, but more than that I learned that empowerment has both an external and an internal component. Externally, it involves the organizational environment and conditions that are set in motion by a leader. Internally, it involves the effect those circumstances have on bringing out the best qualities in you.

When I became a superintendent in my own right, I remembered those lessons and set out to create conditions that would be empowering to the administrators and teachers I worked with.

Empowerment is a gift we can give to others. It is not something we bestow per se; rather, it is something we engender by the way we treat others and the way we lead. It flows from trust, faith, and belief—and, of course, from love. Love is empowering. Just think of the people who love you and the effect their love has on you. Think of the people who trust you, have faith in you, believe in you, and trace the effects—empowerment!

Having high expectations can also be empowering. An extraordinarily talented supervisor once asked me what I expected of her. I told her to just use her own intuition and do whatever she thought would be empowering to the teachers and principals she worked with. The combination of trust I placed in her and the high regard I had for her capabilities were empowering for her. By all accounts, her own included, she did the best work she had ever done.

Earlier I mentioned organizational environment and conditions. This is the area in which wise leaders can have their greatest impact. We can create structures, conditions, and systems that are empowering—or, at the other extreme, disempowering. We can create conditions that bring out people’s innate talents or stifle them. We can create conditions that allow people to feel free and valued or restricted and devalued. Much has been written about organizational climate. Those climates can be empowering or disempowering. Empowerment is not only a force; it is also a lens leaders can use to examine their own actions and choices to try to get a sense of whether a given decision moves their organization toward empowerment or away from it.

One of the things leaders can do to empower others is to promote them into positions of greater responsibility or give them opportunities to handle special assignments. I was given the opportunity to be a superintendent’s intern. Early on in that position, I was given the opportunity to solve a significant organizational problem by the deputy superintendent. Later the superintendent asked me to draft a law allowing the district to create its own vocational school. Those opportunities and challenges were truly empowering.

The elixir of empowerment truly leverages people and organizations. Spread it around and watch its transformative power.

Center for Empowered Leadership ®
Email: info@cfel.org
Phone: 1.609.259.7911